How to Survive the Days of Awe(ful/some)
Jewish stories have a unique romanticism to them. There's a surreal sense of destiny and mystery, asking us, ever so slightly, to suspend our sense of reality and grasp onto a world just beyond what might be possible. I love our stories; both reading and telling them. But sometimes I wonder, perhaps, about telling one of our own.
In my mind's eye, I'd like to imagine that when we tell the story of our Yamim Noraim this year, we are standing together, you and me, like angels. We listen closely as the sounds of the Shofar pierce the heavens as they pierce our hearts and souls. The prosecuting angels cower in terror, and Hashem welcomes us home. He holds onto each and every word and tear, and prepares to shower us with serenity, clarity, health, healing, peace and prosperity.
As the sun rises on Rosh Hashana morning we have all completed a reckoning of our misgivings. Each of us has tallied all the moments we have wasted, all the lost opportunities, the minor faults, down to the details we might have missed in our service of Hashem. Our hearts are filled with soulful regret; we redouble our convictions that this year we will work harder, love more, try again, fly even higher.
In our story, our children are standing quietly by our sides with anticipation, following along in their own machzorim. They are yearning, engaged, their hearts and souls on fire. Their sweet voices join our own, as we all beseech the Almighty for His lofty redemption, and a national return to Yerushalayim.
In our story, no one is looking a the clock. Time stands still. The world is on pause. All that we know is this moment; this elevated slice of time beyond space, beyond reality.
No one is complaining about their seat, no one even notices the air conditioning, or the weather. No one is commenting on the choice or length of the tunes. None of us would dare utter a sound to disturb the serene transcendence of the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe!
It's a good story. But my mind's eye is probably not a good reflection of reality. Hopes, dreams and possibilities? Perhaps...
The truth, however, is that we are not angels; you and me. Our mistakes fill pages beyond the ledgers of Bittul Torah and wasted moments. Our failures are not limited to the Brachos that we didn't make with enough kavana.
We have other issues, and our fault lines run deeper than the stories we're willing to tell. If we are honest with ourselves, it is not always clear that we will or that we even want to make the changes that we know we need to make. Our records have many more blemishes than we are comfortable admitting.
Often, to our great shame and pain, the example we set for our children (in shul and out) is not exactly the model of exemplary chinuch. Our young kids seem far more likely to be arguing over a lolly pop and staring into space than pleading with the Almighty for Redemption. And our older children and teens are more desperate to finish davening than we are. Or perhaps they're just more honest about it.
Of course, almost everyone is looking at the clock, and for many, the most heartfelt of our prayers is: Please God, let us merit to be counted amongst the “many congregations” who “omit this piyut and continue on page...”
We are not good at these Days of Awe.
We struggle to feel “it” for any sustainable length of time. Instead of Awe, we feel the weight of guilt, of our inability to maintain focus, concentration and sincerity during the most consequential moments of the year.
Dutifully, we are drawn to Shul. But in our shame, we resort to distractions and cynicism, wondering if any of our efforts are real; and if we have made any impact during these Days of Awe.
So we count the pages. Take breaks outside. Get distracted. Schmooze with a friend. Perhaps we'll take the “Frum” way out and open a Sefer; catch up on the Daf. Either way, our guilt compounds; like a kid showing up to school without his homework, desperately hoping that the teacher does not ask for it. We'll breathe a sigh of relief with the last blasts of the Shofar.
We are not ready for these Days of Awe.
The Origins of Awe
It's unclear who first coined the term “Yamim Noraim”. Our earliest reference in print is found in the Maharil (14th Century). Since then, the term has permeated Halachik and Hashkafik writing ever since. In the minds, hearts and texts of our people, these days are “Days of Awe”.
But “Awe” is not a feeling that our generation is used to feeling. We do not react positively to feelings of dread or fear. We do not take kindly to threats, and we don't responds well to shame and guilt.
Granted, this might well be a weakness in us, but years of teaching and parenting has convinced me that there is little benefit in shaming anyone who believes that they have failed before even beginning.
Perhaps we should question the purpose of this emotion. Is this the primary feeling that we should aim for in coming to Shul?
The Mishna Berura (קנא:א׳) writes that the Torah's requirements of מקדשי תיראו – fear, awe and reverence for the Beis HaMikdash, are also applicable and obligatory in our Shuls, our Mikdash Me'at as well.
In the Shulchan Aruch and the Poskim there are many details that govern the decorum, usage and behaviors that are appropriate for a Shul, all derived from the expectations of being in the House of Hashem.
But in a stunning reversal, the Meshech Chochma (דברים לד:יב) explains that מורא מקדש – the obligation to revere sacred spaces – is not a prescription of what we must achieve, but a correction. We are only obligated in awe, to ensure a measured experience.
דבמקדש שהשכינה שורה ועשרה נסים נעשו, ומרוב ההרגל של האדם בדביקות להשי”ת נקל למצוא מדת האהבה, לכך הזהירה תורה וממקדשי תיראו, ששם נקל לבעוט ולסור מדת הפחד מהאדם. ולכן אין עשה דוחה ל”ת שבמקדש... ולכך את ד' אלדיך תירא ואותו תעבוד, כי במקום העבודה נקל לקנות אהבה, צוה על היראה... In the Mikdash, where the presence of Hashem is felt, and ten miracles happened every day; and from the ease, comfort and regularity of connecting to Hashem, attaining Love of Hashem was simple. For this reason, the Torah warns “Show Awe in My Mikdash”... Likewise, when the Torah commands “Serve Hashem and Fear Him,” it is because Love is already simply achieved by serving Him, therefore the Torah commands fear...
The base line of our relationship with Hashem is supposed to be love, connection and desire. But in order to ensure that Hashem is still the King and that we are not too casual, the Torah offers מורא מקדש as a counterweight.
That is to say: If the awe and reverence we are aiming for is not built on a solid foundation of connection, yearning, love and positivity, then we're getting it horribly wrong. If our religious experience is dominated by feelings of fear, shame and guilt, then the most essential component in our relationship with Hashem is tragically lacking.
Same Days, Different Names
Perhaps then, it is worth considering that “Yamim Noraim” is only the “second best” name for these days. First place goes to a different designation: Chazal and the Rishonim called these days ימי רצון – Days of Desire, Days of Will. (ע׳ ביאור הגר״א תקפ״א:א׳).
The original forty days from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur were the days that Hashem took us back. After the colossal failure of the Golden Calf, Hashem still wanted us: ימי רצון, indeed. The Gra explains that this idea in expressed in the text of Mussaf:
אַתָּה בְחַרְתָּנוּ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים אָהַבְתָּ אותָנוּ וְרָצִיתָ בָּנוּ You chose us from all the nations (on Pesach). You loved us (on Shavuos, when You gave us the Torah). And You wanted us (on Sukkos, after taking us back on Yom Kippur.)
How might we feel if we focused on feeling needed rather than feeling needy? How different might these Yamim Noraim be, if we used our time in Shul to reimagine ourselves as Awesome, rather than Awful?
We've Been Here Before
Lest you think that this is some new-age idea, please know, it is not my Chiddush. When our ancestors retuned from Bavel to rebuild the Second Beis HaMikdash, they too felt lost, ill prepared, and empty. Those who returned were overwhelmingly ignorant and destitute.
On the first Rosh Hashana after the Walls of Yerushalayim had been rebuilt, Ezra and Nechemia gathered the broken survivors of exile and they read from the Torah. As those poor Jews listened, they began to cry in their pain, fear and inadequacy.
Ezra and Nechemia beg of them to dry their tears, as they declare:
...הַיּוֹם קָדֹשׁ־הוּא לה׳ אֱלֹקיכֶם אַל־תִּתְאַבְּלוּ וְאַל־תִּבְכּוּ כִּי בוֹכִים כָּל־הָעָם כְּשָׁמְעָם אֶת־דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה. אִכְלוּ מַשְׁמַנִּים וּשְׁתוּ מַמְתַקִּים וְשִׁלְחוּ מָנוֹת לְאֵין נָכוֹן לוֹ ...וְאַל־תֵּעָצֵבוּ כִּי־חֶדְוַת ה׳ הִיא מָעֻזְּכֶם׃. וַיֵּלְכוּ כָל־הָעָם לֶאֱכֹל וְלִשְׁתּוֹת וּלְשַׁלַּח מָנוֹת וְלַעֲשׂוֹת שִׂמְחָה גְדוֹלָה כִּי הֵבִינוּ בַּדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר הוֹדִיעוּ לָהֶם׃
“This day is holy to Hashem your God: you must not mourn or weep,” for all the people were weeping as they listened to the words of the Torah... “Go, eat delicious foods and drink fine drinks and send gifts to those who have nothing, for the day is holy to our God. Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in Hashem is the source of your strength.” Then all the people went to eat and drink and send portions and make great merriment, for they understood the things they were told.
Hashem should help us, during these Yemei Ratzon, that we too should merit to understand. Perhaps then, our story can indeed be told. All that Hashem wants is to hold onto each and every word and tear, and shower us with serenity, clarity, health, healing, peace and prosperity. He wants to sign and seal us in the Book of the Greatest Life.
In return, He asks that we want Him too; that our lives should be lived for Him – למענך אלקים חיים.